Sep 24, 2010

The controversy over Rep. Sanford Bishop's decision to award charity scholarships to his relatives has expanded as four more students tied to the south Georgia Democrat and his wife have acknowledged receiving them, as well.

Bishop earlier this month repaid the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation $6,350 to cover the cost of scholarships that he provided to his stepdaughter and niece. The nonprofit foundation receives funding from corporate sponsors to help fund the education of needy students.

Now the circle of people known to have received scholarships and have connections to the Bishops is growing, raising fresh criticism from a government watchdog group and questions from charity officials. Public documents and interviews show that two scholarships went to the children of individuals who were employed by Bishop's wife, while two more went to persons with connections to the congressman's office.

"Those scholarships were intended to go to smart, needy kids," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "It wasn't supposed to be a matter of cronyism."

Bishop, who is running for re-election against Republican Mike Keown, has refused to discuss his or his wife's relationships with the scholarship recipients, except to say the awards met rules set by the CBC Foundation.

"There's no reason to go into this, so we're not going to do it," Bishop spokesman Tim Turner said.

The foundation, a nonprofit that supports the work of the CBC through policy seminars and other activities, did not explicitly bar scholarships from going to relatives of lawmakers, foundation board members and staff until 2008.

But an attorney for the foundation, Amy Goldson, said it's long been understood that scholarships shouldn't be directed to relatives.

"Would they be happy to admit in public that we're raising this money because we want to give this to our relatives?" asked Goldson. "Nope, this is to help deserving young students who otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity."

The foundation began an internal audit of its scholarship program this summer after U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas admitted that she steered scholarships to her relatives and a staffer's children.

In Bishop's case, scholarships went to people who worked for his wife, Columbus Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop, who chaired a committee of lawmaker spouses who raised money for the scholarship program from 2003 to 2005.

Besides assisting his two relatives, Rep. Bishop earlier acknowledged that one scholarship went to Sherletha Thomas, who once worked for his wife and is now married to a staffer of the congressman's.

Others related to those with ties to Rep. Bishop recently said they received scholarships during the years 2001 to 2003.


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